There are indie movies that feel indie because of their budget, and there are indie movies that feel indie because of their writing. Ian Olds’ (Occupation: Dreamland, Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi) Burn Country (2016) is a fine example of the latter. While an interesting concept, what the movie’s screenplay delivers is a “more relatable” version of a crime drama that some film-schooler wanted to make after seeing Blow-Up (1966). But I’m being harsh. Burn Country is very okay. The film, opening with an awesome shot of a woman screaming angrily in subtitle-less Polish before pulling back to reveal the actual world of the movie (almost a reverse of the ear zoom-in from Blue Velvet (1986), which was probably another film school inspiratio- okay, okay I’ll stop), definitely has its moments.
Based loosely on the concept of Olds’ Fixer, Burn Country stars Dominic Rains as Osman, a former war journalist from Afghanistan who, after working as a translator for American journalist Gabe (James Oliver Wheatley), leaves his country to start anew in rural California. His host mother Gloria (Melissa Leo), is actual mother to Osman’s friend Gabe, and is the head sheriff of the unnamed backwoods town. Osman, with Gloria’s help, gets a job as the newspaper’s police blotter, and in an attempt to get back to his war journalist roots, takes the job too seriously and ends up uncovering the dark underbelly of the small town, all while getting to know it and its inhabitants. (Whoaaaaa, David Lynch called, he wants the only plot he ever uses back- okay seriously I’m done).
Despite my cynicism, this is a great plot for a movie; a great base for what could be an enormously gripping story. In execution however, Burn Country doesn’t totally make the cut. What’s supposed to be a character-driven story is held back by every character other than the lead being weird as all heck, and I’m not only talking about the deliberately weird characters. The interactions between characters are unrealistic and unnatural, and not in an intentional way; from Gloria taking her role as mother too literally when it comes to someone who isn’t only not her kid, but also a grown man, and tucking Osman in at night to a tonally out of place “saw-her-from-across-the-room” introduction to a love interest. Exposition is forced in by characters placed in bizarre situations that could only occur from a result of bizarre behavior, and Osman takes every breach of personal space in stride, even laughing each time at the ‘quirkiness’ of it all. In a movie that otherwise gives off every impression of trying to be dark and realistic, is it not weird when strange attractive women who’ve smiled at you once start being outrageously nice to you for no reason? Isn’t the old loon who just met you and is only supposed to be driving you somewhere explaining to you everything that you are as a human weird and rude and not at all introspective or wise? These are lazy ways to write meet-cutes and develop personalities for characters that ultimately don’t amount to much in the story at all. The character-exposition-hippy-party setting has been old since Garden State (2004), which is an insanely overrated movie to begin with.
The movie sets up some interesting themes in the beginning that unfortunately never develop. The Polish play that so delighted Osman in the opening scene easily parallels his own experience as a newly emigrated Afghan, but this sense of identity never turns into anything more once the meat of the plot starts. The exploding of Osman’s mailbox could be easily construed as backcountry racism, but nobody reacts to Osman as anything other than a fresh face with interesting war stories to tell once his newspaper job begins. There’s an uncomfortable (and unfair) parallel made between journalism in war-torn countries and crime journalism in America that appears at first to be the movie’s B-plot but then never has any story structure of its own. The most we get out of a theme without reading too much into things that are only barely there is a bad line near the end that basically means, “Even though we’re murderers, we’re good people.” (Barf.)
The cinematography is fine, the acting is good, and while I don’t like looking at James Franco, it’s nice to see him in a role where he boasts his true, real life colors as a greasy scumbag. The movie even shows off a pretty good score. I was entertained enough to sit through the entirety of it without being distracted, making it the most interesting thing going on in my parents’ living room. A lot of times, this is enough for a movie to pass, and it does in Olds’ film school grade terms, but a critic’s gotta critique, and Burn Country doesn’t live up to what it could’ve been. All that said, Olds has an awesome track record as a documentarian, and it’ll be interesting to see where his forays into narrative will take him.